The debate around halal food hasn’t touched on how halal certification might have helped to enable the suffering of thousands of young girls.
The halal food market is expected to be worth more than 2 trillion dollars by 2025. What many people do not realise is that a significant amount of that money may end up going to bodies connected to the certification of halal products, such as the Indonesian Council of Islamic clerics – Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) – a leading supporter of female genital mutilation (FGM).
MUI is Indonesia’s leading Islamic organisation and founded the World Halal Food Council. UNICEF has documented MUI’s support for FGM, reporting that MUI issued a fatwa (Islamic ruling) recommending that “Female Muslims undergo FGM/C since it is considered a rule and symbol of Islam”.
FGM can include partial or complete removal of a girl’s external genitalia. In severe cases, the entire clitoris may be removed and the labia sewn up. Abigail Haworth, the senior international editor of the American edition of Marie Claire, witnessed a mass FGM ceremony and later gave a heart-wrenching account of it in The Guardian. Recalling her encounter with one victim of the procedure, Haworth wrote, “Suminah is in severe pain. An hour earlier, her genitals were mutilated with scissors as she lay on a school desk. During the morning, 248 Indonesian girls undergo the same ordeal. [Twelve-year-old] Suminah is the oldest, the youngest is just five months”.
Fatwas such as MUI’s have been so influential that, according to UNICEF, at least 49% of girls in Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim country – have undergone female genital mutilation, destroying the myth that FGM is only an African practice.
“At least 49% of girls in Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim country – have undergone female genital mutilation”
But what’s the link between halal certification and the genital mutilation of young girls?
So far, the controversy surrounding halal food has been focused elsewhere, for instance on objections to the cruelty that halal slaughter entails or allegations, thus far unproven, that halal certification may help fund Islamic terrorism.
Halal certification is an industry in its own right, one which developed from the goal of certifying that particular goods are suitable for Muslim consumption. Some Muslim majority nations, such as Indonesia, demand that food that enters their country is halal certified.
The industry is secretive about its exact structure. However, it appears that the certifiers are hand picked by the various halal authorities that operate in each country. Therefore, if a food producer wishes to export to several Islamic countries, e.g. Indonesia and Qatar, they may need to obtain multiple halal certifications from a variety of certifiers representing each country. The fees can be substantial, and meat producers will be required to employ Muslim slaughtermen.
In the case of MUI, there have been accusations from certifiers who wish to retain their coveted positions that they had to pay bribes to the body. Its power to certify halal products in Indonesia was transferred to another organisation by the government in October last year. However, it still retains final authority over the process by holding the responsibility for issuing edicts stating that products are worthy of being halal certified.
A worldwide concern
Exports are not the only problem. The amount of food eaten domestically in the West that is also halal certified is shocking, despite the fact that it is produced locally and never reaches the Islamic market.
The situation in Australia is a particularly illuminating. Despite Muslims making up only 2.6% of the country’s population, a great deal of Australian food (barring pork and alcohol) is now halal certified. This is according to testimony given at the 2015 Australian Senate inquiry into the third-party certification of food, which estimated that over 80% of Australian chicken is halal certified despite less than 5% of it being exported. Exactly what proportion of food is halal certified is something that even the inquiry, with all its governmental powers, could not uncover. This was for various reasons: a lot of the food is not labelled as such, and few certifiers were forthcoming with information. Some are registered charities and therefore have limited financial reporting obligations.
The 2015 Senate inquiry recommended that all halal certified foods be labelled. This recommendation has never been implemented.
The 2016/17 “State of The Global Islamic Economy” report, produced by Thomson Reuters in collaboration with DinarStandard and supported by the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre, listed Australia as 2nd on its worldwide Halal Food Indicator, which evaluates each country’s “relative strengths of the ecosystem they have for the development of the sector.” According to the 2017/18 report, Australia has now slipped down to 4th place. The report notes that worldwide “strong anti-Halal sentiment has arisen” and that rising populism “is likely to limit the wider reach of Halal products beyond Muslim consumers”. This raises the question as to why would an Islamic certification scheme need to reach non-Muslim customers in the first place.
The reports make it clear that halal certification is a rapidly expanding industry making inroads into virtually every corner of the world, including Europe, Asia and the Americas. This isn’t limited to just food, because while food is the largest sector of the Islamic economy, the reports also document other growth areas such as Islamic finance, fashion, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, travel, media, education, and so on.
In fact, MUI – the influential Indonesian advocate for the genital mutilation of little girls – supported legislation that mandated that “Goods and/or services comprising of food, beverages, medicines, cosmetics, chemical products, biological products, genetically engineered products, as well as items that are worn, used or made use by the public” need to be halal certified. So pretty much everything.
The forced removal and or damage to a girl’s genitalia, leading to, at the very least, a life of diminished sexual pleasure, and at worst, a lifetime of pain, must be one of the worst injustices that she can suffer. It is horrifying to consider that we may have been contributing to this misogynistic practice through our daily purchases. Given the current rise of movements such as #MeToo, I hope that some of the advocates for female empowerment will speak out about this issue.
Dana Forrest is a freelance writer and writes on issues of cultural and political significance